The Radicalism of Harry Hay

Published in: November-December 2013 issue.


The following is adapted from a keynote speech by the author titled “Radical Love, Visionary Politics: The Adventure of Harry Hay,” which was delivered at a conference called “Radically Gay: The Life and Visionary Legacy of Harry Hay,” held September 27–30, 2012, in New York City.


ON AUGUST 10, 1948, Harry Hay wrote a prospectus that anticipated the goals, forms, and institutions of today’s international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement to an    extent that was truly prophetic—and for six decades, he brooded over this new movement as it sputtered to life, nudging it onto its feet in the 1950s, steeling its resolve in the 1960s, challenging it to claim its rightful place among the great causes of our time, until 2002, when, still grumbling and grousing, still issuing alarums and calls, his brow furrowed at the horizon, he passed. He was ninety.

Hay Sept 10_001         I want first to acknowledge the importance of Harry Hay—his activism and ideas, and his remarkable body of work. It’s a radical enterprise—in the sense of the word that Hay liked to point out, “to the root.” For in exploring Hay’s life and thought we will be returning to the roots of LGBT liberation, contemplating not only its proximate causes and circumstances, but also the nature of the inner conflict that finds its resolution in an act of sheer audacity: declaring an identity, signing up for a cause. And if you have difficulty putting together the idea of “major historical figure” and “really big queen”—well, you’ve come to the right place! Because I will argue that this drama queen, in his Holy Fool outfit of jeans and camouflage skirt and fake pearls, ranks among the most inspiring and courageous civil rights leaders in American history.

In the 1950s, Hay was not alone nor the first to challenge society’s treatment of homosexuals. Writers like Robert Duncan, Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin all published works offering a defense of homosexuals and challenging the prejudice against us. Social scientists like Alfred Kinsey, Donald Webster Cory, and Evelyn Hooker were taking on the biases of their disciplines. And activists like Paul Goodman, Bayard Rustin, and David McReynolds were beginning to step out of the closet. But Harry Hay did something none of these others did: he called a meeting.

Hay is best known for his role in starting up the original Mattachine Society. Between 1950 and 1953, Harry Hay, Chuck Rowland, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, Konrad Stevens, James Gruber, and Rudi Gernreich built an organization that used consciousness-raising groups to recruit members; held fundraisers, events, and lectures; spun off a publication; successfully defended one of its mem- bers against entrapment; distributed flyers and leaflets; and began polling political candidates. By 1953, perhaps 5,000 people in northern and southern California had attended Mattachine  activities.

Then, when a local newspaper columnist hinted darkly that a “strange new pressure group” named Mattachine might include communists, some members panicked. Hay, of course, was a big commie, as were some of the other organizers. Two conventions were called in the spring of 1953. On vote after vote, the founders and their original vision were affirmed. But red-baiting by conservative dissidents and the fear of investigation led the founders to make a dramatic decision. To give the organization a clean slate, they all resigned.

Make no mistake: the founders were not booted out or voted down. The grassroots, activist Mattachine was betrayed by assimilationists who were threatening to take names to the FBI. But even more heartbreaking, the story of early Mattachine was suppressed. The young activists of the post-Stonewall years—my generation—had no idea that a grassroots, liberation-based movement had existed before. Not until Jonathan Katz’ 1976 Gay American History did we know, and what a surprise it was, that an activist movement had flourished over a quarter of a century earlier. And it had all been thought up by a man who used theory and skills he had learned as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. What’s more, he was still alive!

And who would have predicted that Hay would return to Los Angeles in 1979 and resume a life of renewed activism, and along the way help launch yet another movement—the unruly, indefinable, incomparable Radical Faeries? Then, in 1990, we got Stuart Timmons’ masterful biography, The Trouble with Harry Hay, its pages brimming with the names of the activists, actors, artists, writers, musicians, dancers, political figures, and others that Hay had known, a “Who’s Who” of bohemian Los Angeles in the mid-20th century. And Hay continued to make high-profile interventions into GLBT politics well into his seventies and eighties, whenever he felt voices were being excluded. But Hay’s greatest contribution was the breakthrough that enabled him to see queer folks as a people.

IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE for us to imagine the consciousness of a time when there simply was no such group. As Hay so often pointed out to anyone who would listen, when he was a young man there was no word for talking about “us”—no common term that didn’t amount to a malediction or provoke nervous giggles. We were “that way,” “sensitive,” or “touched”; “aunties,” “nancies,” or “fairies.” Nothing frustrated Hay more than the anachronistic projection of our modern self-awareness onto the times he lived in as a young man. Hay’s point was that the leap from adjective to noun had not been made, and until it had, sexual minorities did not and could not think about themselves in collective ways. It was literally unthinkable.

In the 1930s, when Hay suggested to his boyfriend, Will Geer—the leftist actor who ended his career playing Grandpa Walton—that they start a society of “us” and have serious discussions, Geer snapped back: “But honey, what would we talk about?”

Geer was putting it politely. Henry Gerber, a leftist activist like Hay, who also tried to “call a meeting” in Chicago in the 1920s, provides a blunter appraisal of the prospects Hay faced. “The first difficulty,” Gerber recalled, “was in rounding up enough members and contributors so the work could go forward. The average homosexual, I found, was ignorant concerning himself. Others were fearful. Still others were frantic or depraved. Some were blasé. Many homosexuals told me that their search for forbidden fruit was the real spice of life. With this argument they rejected our aims. We wondered how we could accomplish anything with such resistance from our own people.”

So how do you call a political meeting of a group of people who call each other the “friends of Dorothy”? Will Geer’s question was the Gordian knot that had to be cut if there was to be a movement. For Hay, the answer came in 1948. That August he attended a party of what turned out to be all gay men. He had a copy of “the Kinsey Report” under his arm, and he had just come from signing a petition to place Harry Wallace’s name on the California ballot as a candidate for president. Beer flowed, talk followed, and that night a new idea was born.

Wallace’s third-party candidacy was drawing support from many activists like Hay, whose roots lay in the Popular Front politics of the 1930s and 40s. This was the period when American Communists forged alliances with a wide range of groups that opposed fascism and the worst ills of capitalism. In America, opposing fascism meant fighting racism. The Party lent aid to African-American causes and organizations, and wide-ranging discussions among Party intellectuals extended Marxist principles to make the case that cultural, racial, and ethnic minorities had common cause with the working class—over and against an older view that considered minorities the byproduct of capitalism’s attempt to divide and conquer.

In Southern California, not uniquely but especially, African-Americans were one of several groups experiencing racism, and they all had a common enemy in brutally repressive law enforcement agencies and local governments dominated by business interests. The communists worked with them all. And so, in mid-20th century, as Daniel Hurewitz shows in Bohemian Los Angeles (2007), we see the chrysalis of what was to come—multiculturalism, an analysis of the relationship between class and both racism and sexism, and the ever-shifting coalitional politics that are now so characteristic of the American city.

Meanwhile, at the 1948 party in an apartment in L.A., the discussion ranged from Kinsey and his startling revelations regarding homosexuality to the Wallace campaign. Hay tossed out the idea that a discreet organization, calling itself perhaps, Bachelors for Wallace, could lobby for a plank supporting the right to privacy. The idea took off. At dawn’s early light the revelers straggled home to sleep it off. But not Hay, who was pouring coffee and sitting down at the typewriter.

When he pulled out the last sheet of paper, he had created a prospectus of brazen scope. In this text he used the capitalized word “Minority” fourteen times in the phrase “Androgynous Minority,” but that was soon replaced with “homophile,” then later still with “gay,” “faerie,” and “third gender,” among others. But the noun was always “minority”—and this was new. The other Mattachine organizers challenged Hay to flesh out this idea. Chuck Rowland recalled, “I kept saying, ‘What is our theory?’ Having been a Communist, you’ve got to work with a theory. ‘What is our basic principle that we are building on?’ And Hay said, ‘We are an oppressed cultural minority.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly it!’”

Hay’s ideas were discussed extensively by the founders at discussion groups and in presentations by Hay. When the group adopted a mission statement in 1951, it referred to homosexuals as an “oppressed minority.” The organizers put the theory to practice. The thesis states that we are a group, so discussions were centered around the questions this idea generates: What do we all have common? What experiences do we share? How can we help each other? The results were powerfully cathartic—and by 1953 the discussion groups had proliferated.

The most fully developed version of the thesis exists in notes that Hay wrote in 1960. He began by borrowing the definition of cultural minorities from a text he used in his Marxist classes, one often cited in the Party’s discussions about African-Americans, which states: “A nation [that here has the sense of “a people,” or a minority, within a larger state]is a historically-evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” No single characteristic is determinative, “only a sum total of characteristics, of which, when nations are compared, one characteristic (national character), or another (language), or a third (territory, economic conditions), stands out in sharper relief.” As Hay sums it up, all groups “whose motivating persuasions and/or fundamental inclinations evoke decisive patterns towards a socially specific way of life, are to be seen as Social Minorities.”

Hay provided several examples to show the variety of ways in which minority identities could be constituted and then creatively reformulated to survive over time. Two were especially key to his argument. The Nisei were the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, a racist policy that Communists like Hay had protested. Had the Nisei been deported to Japan, as was threatened, their American outlook would have marked them as a minority there as well, even though they remained racially and linguistically Japanese. Similarly, the former American slaves who established a colony in Liberia were black but no longer African; they became a minority within the nation they created.

In each case, social and historical contingencies trumped essential traits. Now Hay turned to the case of modern homosexuals. They do not come from a single race or have a single language; they do not have cross-generational kinship systems. But Hay argued that they have two of the four variables in his paradigm: a shared psychological make-up or outlook and distinctive modes of communication. In light of his previous examples, this is enough. As for the other variables, Hay noted, they can be “historically constituted.”

I call this the “cultural minority lite” thesis or the existential version. It says that common experiences of being queer, of facing hostile families and communities, learning strategies for surviving, finding others like us, and the values that accrue from these experiences, provide sufficient common bonds for a movement and the seeds of a culture. This version does not make transcendental claims regarding a continuous past or essential traits. It cannot be accused of essentialism in the way that Hay is usually held up. But as Hay’s thinking developed, he elaborated this thesis into what I call the full-on or “transcendental” version of the cultural minority theory. Although more controversial and easily stereotyped, I think it is a richer, more provocative hypothesis than the existential version, and it is equally grounded in Marxist thinking.

Already by 1960, Hay’s research had convinced him that “we” had a place in history that transcended modernity. And here is where the two exemplars he cited so often were key—the so-called two-spirit or berdache role of Native North America (which has many parallels worldwide) and the Fool, a folkloric figure in Renaissance Europe that Hay believed was a survival of an ancient, pre-Christian agrarian village role. Hay concluded that these roles were based on craft and religious specialization. Crafts being tied to production, religion to the redistribution of surpluses, this means that roles such as these are not epiphenomena of the superstructure but integral to the social relations of production, the central subject of Marxism.

SADLY, if the cultural minority thesis is known at all, it is by the stereotypes painted by its critics. It is not an exaggeration to say that careers have been built on decrying this notion that GLBT people constitute a minority or have a culture. Given our diversity and divisiveness, this notion of identity can only be a category error, a phantasm, an Althusserian interpolation, false consciousness, in Jeffrey Weeks’ words, “a historical fiction, a controlling myth, a limiting burden.”

But a real debate between Harry Hay and anti-identitarian queer theory has never been held. So let’s do this now! In this corner I give you Harry Hay, a contender for title of founder of queer liberation, survivor of twelve rounds before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, darling of the radical faeries. And in this corner, I give you the man whose single statement has done more to define GLBT studies than any single statement has ever defined a discipline before, professor of History of Systems of Thought, idol of graduate students wherever the humanities are still taught, the author of page 43 of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault. Foucault first:

This new penetration of the peripheral sexualities entailed an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals. As defined by the ancient civil and canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a persona, a past, a case, a history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form and a morphology. … We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized—Westphal’s famous article of 1870…can stand as its date of birth—less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. … The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now species.

Note the repetitive language, circling around and around then driving the point home, while reaching deep into the archive to pull out a single text and wave it before us as the definitive marker of a discursive rupture. And the use of italics—honestly, if you capitalized some of these words and threw in a few exclamation marks, I might think this was one of Hay’s texts!

Dare I say, we’re clearly in the presence of two drama queens of the highest order?

And Hay? Here I paraphrase from his writings and my many conversations with him. He would say something like this:

Michel, honey, “homosexual” was not a kind of person, let alone a species, or way of life, and we didn’t become a people in 1870. We simply became sick heteros—failed, depraved, deficient, deviated versions of the only kind of human there was—heterosexual. Taxonomy is not ontology. And perverts are not people, any more than corporations are people, my friend. And as for inverting masculine and feminine—did you ever ask the girls back in the schoolyard at the Lycée if they thought you threw a ball like them? They’d have told you that you didn’t throw a ball like a girl, but like something other. Michel, honey, some of us may be a combination of hetero-female and hetero-male, but mostly we are a combination of neither.

Now, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to tap my heels and transport myself back to my seminar days in History of Consciousness in the redwood groves of Santa Cruz and carry this argument a bit further.

Foucault’s text, cited so dutifully, for all purposes the imprimatur of legitimate GLBT studies, contains a phallocentric flaw. It postulates a binary of two discrete, symmetrical terms: homosexual and heterosexual. Hay is saying it’s no binary at all, because one term, heterosexual, is always already dominant. Homosexual is neither symmetrical to nor independent from heterosexual. It is merely its inferior, its subaltern, a parodic knock-off of the heterosexual. Its production serves only to perfect the idealized presence of the dominant term.

Hay, by rejecting the ontological claims Foucault makes for medical discourse, initiated a deconstruction of this binary, which follows exactly the methodology of Jacques Derrida. First, he pinpoints the rupture that reveals its hierarchy: the characterization of the homosexual as inverting masculine and feminine, terms that depend on and presuppose heterosexuality. The homosexual is merely the internalization of heterosexuality’s division of labor, a bad dream of the imaginary that longs for the unity of its opposites. Hay postulates instead, not an opposition or a synthesis, but a supplement that is neither or both parts of the opposition. This is what he is doing when he insists that we are neither hetero-male nor hetero-female, that we are “not-men and not-women,” or that we are characterized by “neitherness.” Note the play and undecidabilty. Rather than perfect the presence of the privileged term, they reveal the absences within it.

Yes, “homosexual” constructed perverts so that they could be controlled. True that, as far it goes. But “homosexual” did not make us persons; it made us subhumans, just as racism made subhumans of people of color. Hay’s cultural perspective upsets the Foucaultian apple cart. It asserts an ontological status not derived from, parallel to, or a reversal of heterosexuality, but just other. What other? As Hay wrote in 1970, “Let us enter this brave new world of subject-subject consciousness, this new planet of Fairy-vision, and find out.”

Note that what really separates Foucault and Hay is not constructionism versus essentialism. These are two versions of social constructionism. What distinguishes them is their view of power. In Foucault, it’s all top-down. Medical authorities write it, states enforce it, and bodies, in the moment of becoming subjects, are subjugated. But it’s tautological. Since discourse theory does not require embodied actors, it does not find it necessary to provide evidence regarding who read these texts and if it mattered. For Hay, identity construction is creative, political, transactional…and it is active, identities are the result of identifying. What Hay is saying, long-story-short, is this: juridico-medical discourse did not construct our identities. Excuse me. We built that.

Since Stonewall, the existential model of GLBT identity has been enough to unite us. It has given us an effective civil rights moment, a lively culture of resistance, and bonds of amazing strength that sustained us through the AIDS epidemic. But Hay believed that GLBT people had a deep yearning to see themselves as having a more meaningful place in the human story. A doubt remains at the core—if I’m not sick or deviant, if I’m normal, why don’t I have a history? And if I’m different, what’s the purpose of it? Hay’s thinking encompasses either and both of these models: the minority lite version, grounded in the existential experience of being queer in America; and the full-on transcendental version, grounding us in the broadest narratives of human history. Both affirm identity, both affirm progressive identity politics.


Will Roscoe, Ph.D. is the editor of Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder, a collection of Harry Hay’s writings. He lives in San Francisco.


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